Climate change – partly a consumption problem

Climate change is real and our species, particularly the affluent parts, are causing most of it. The over-arching need of generations alive today is to start living within our energy and carbon means: to start taking responsibility, collectively and individually, for the environmental impact of our actions. We have only one small blue planet to live on, but energy and resource use by Irish people is based on having 3.5 of them. 50% of global emissions come from 10% of the world’s population – the Affluent West of which we are part. As Dr. Kevin Anderson of Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre stated, at a talk in the Royal Irish Academy in 2016[1], it is therefore ‘a consumption problem not a population problem’. The ‘good news’ is that a range of changes in the lifestyles, buildings and infrastructures of the 10% can radically and positively impact on global carbon emissions and climate stability. The ‘bad news’ is that we are the 10%. We need to make significant, historically speedy changes to many aspects of our society. In particular we need to implement deep cuts in our energy use.

Climate change scientists have made clear that there is a limited period during which the World, in particular the Affluent West, must make these changes. They have established a global CO2 budget for each year till 2050. This is the amount that they believe can be emitted every year while ensuring a steady reduction in carbon emissions[2] such that the Earth’s atmosphere does not warm to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The alternative, runaway climate change, should be unconscionable. At the COP21 Paris Climate Conference in 2015 the nations of the world finally agreed to do this. They also committed to trying to remain below 1.5°C as this would particularly benefit the poorer parts of the world. Apparently the second goal is already unattainable and the first is in doubt unless the level of commitment to it by nations and individuals changes. Scientists are very clear that two things are needed together: a shift to zero carbon energy supply AND deep cuts in energy demand. Governments and individual citizens can effect both of these.

The concept of ‘lock-in’ is very important in this regard. The decisions we make on the supply and demand sides of energy will commit us to certain levels of energy use, and thus carbon emissions, for many years till the next replacement of that technology. 90% of our existing buildings are expected to still be here in 2015, new buildings can last perhaps sixty years, power stations ~30 years, cars perhaps eight years. Does the State close three inefficient peat power stations and expand off-shore wind farms? To what extent does the State encourage and fund deep renovations of our housing stock? When do we carry out an energy-efficient renovation of our own house and to what extent? When do I buy my first electric car? Decisions of this kind lock nations, regions and families into specific energy use patterns for extended periods.

An article in the Guardian in 2011[3] warned about the inefficiencies of power stations and buildings still being built worldwide.

‘…Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this "lock-in" effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change, the world's foremost authority on energy economics has found. If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous.

‘"The door is closing," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. "I am very worried – if we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever."

Surprisingly, many decisions effecting energy lock-in are easy, even cost neutral. 15-20% of the Ireland’s emissions are from private road transport. The average car on Irish roads (getting 50 miles per gallon) has emissions of ~170 gCO2/km. The new car fleet[4] averaged 166 gCO2/km in 2000 and 115 gCO2/km in 2015. However, consumers can purchase petrol or diesel cars in every category (except sports SUV) from all the big brands, at no additional premium, with emissions less than 100 gCO2/km. Dr. Anderson stated that if owners switched to low emissions cars, at their usual time of renewal, there could be carbon emission reduction of 50-70% in that sector within 10 years. Switching to electric cars as the grid decarbonises further should reduce emissions further. Cooling and freezing food is typically the third greatest use of energy in dwellings (after hot water and space heating). An A++ fridge uses 80% less energy than an A-rated fridge of the same volume[5]. Dr. Anderson states that swopping out all fridges nationwide in this way could result in CO2 savings of ~50% in ten years. Both easy changes for government to require or consumers to choose. Needless to say such easy changes are needed in every sector alongside changes that will be more difficult.

It has been shown that an increase in access to energy can have huge quality of life benefits for those in the developing world whereas a similar increase has no additional benefit to us. Ireland is a small, wealthy country. Blessed with a mild climate, a stable society, somewhat isolated as an island, yet radically integrated into the world economy. We like our relatively newfound wealth and our position in the affluent West. Habitually we do not want to be told to limit our expenditure and lifestyle or dramatically reduce the energy intensity of our lives. No surprise then that our politicians, and politicians worldwide, who are dependant on us for re-election are tragically slow in adopting the radical policies we need to stabilize carbon emissions and limit climate change damage. Dr. Anderson states that many scientists are very worried that the Agreement made in Paris will be weakened and fail without a great change in political sentiment. Without doubt the EU has shown world leadership in setting out its 2050 Energy Strategy, a subset of which is the building and renovating to the ‘Nearly Zero Energy Buildings’ standard, but the Commission also has difficulty in persuading EU governments to implement and adequately resource measures that are agreed and clearly needed.

In late 2017 we saw Hurricane Ophelia do the impossible – to turn north and gather strength as it approached Ireland. A climate-changed world is an unpredictable and dangerous place. Ireland needs to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement and various EU directives. As voters we need to pressurise politicians and reward those that act. As consumers we need to make informed choices, as homeowners we need to make our buildings a great deal more energy-efficient; as citizens of one planet we need to act equitably, reaffirming the humanity and rights of those not born here, and not born yet.

[1] Accessible on YouTube at:

[2] Carbon in this case stands for all climate changing gases. Methane for instance has 23 times the global warming impact of carbon so has a carbon equivalent value of 23 kgCO2e.

[3] ‘World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns’. Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent. Guardian newspaper, November 2011

[4] Energy in Ireland 1990 – 2015, 2016 Report. SEAI, Dublin

[5] According to DECC, UK


Figure 01 - Environmental activists protest Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate accords, which set a goal of avoiding warming beyond 2C. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images


Friday, November 10, 2017